Not for the first time, I find I’ve pre-empted an exercise with pieces of work that would qualify but were located elsewhere! I have a very hostile-looking self portrait in blue that would have served me well in the ‘character’ exercise, and now I see that my last two pieces (figures in an interior) were also narratives – they had stories to tell. Well, those are not the last stories to tell and in today’s exceptional climate there are others waiting to be told.
The brief this time is to place one or more figures in a situation in which the viewer can see what is happening – which suggests that something is either going on in the scene itself or is implied by the behaviour(s) or appearance of the figure(s) themselves. The key element is to be the relationship between figures or between a single figure and the context.
In the absence of models* this will be an exercise of researched images and imagined scenes, which actually I find quite exciting.
Today I’ve been thinking about the narrative and the way I want to express it. The most obvious topic, the overriding one at the moment, is the impact of social isolation on vulnerable groups and balancing that risk against the immediate one of becoming infected. For some of us, this is no problem, insulated by gardens and technology, but for others the loneliness must be immense.
And so I’ve embarked on an exercise in illustration using four 8″ x 10″ canvas boards, a figure I found on an internet search and which I’ve used before, and an idea about recording the passing seasons for someone with only a window to look out on them from. It’s ambitious and I may not succeed (‘may not’ – who am I kidding?) but I think it’s worth the try.
The figure is a man who has a particular stance and facial expression that falls somewhere between hostility and resignation and my plan is to move him over the narrative year towards the very edge of the window.
I started by measuring out the window and placing it centrally in the canvas on the far left, then gradually moving it over so that the figure, the outline of which I made using the cut-out top right, is almost obscured by it. But looking at it now I think the window needs to remain in a central position with just the figure moving towards the edge.
I’ve prepped the boards with transparent gesso to give the surface some substance. The next step will be to re-align the windows and figure in each ‘frame’.
Adjustments and colour. I’m aiming to suggest brickwork with the brush strokes but the colours don’t make me happy at the moment because there isn’t enough difference between summer and autumn. I like ‘winter’ on the right, and ‘spring’ is okay for now but that green may need some tonal adjustment. For now though, there is a base to work from.
Unscheduled research point: I’ve been running through a MoMA course on modern art put out by Coursera and came across Firelei Baez whose work not only reminds me of Bisa Butler’s with its vibrant palette and focus on Black history, but also references my new favourite science fiction writer, Octavia Butler. This is what Baez says:
I love reading, for example, Octavia Butler. A lot of the methodologies I use in sci-fi are things that you would consider folklore if you went into specific spaces in the Global South. Ways of splicing bodies or ideas of existing as multiples at once are things that are just coded into language and interaction. So it’s more like sci-fi is indebted to them than the other way around. It’s both, growing up in the States and coming from the Dominican Republic and being versed in both and splicing them together.
Isobel Custodio 2018 Studio visit Firelei Baez.
In another unexpected turn, the works described in this article show her figures in windows.
Today’s work: adding a layer to the brickwork, applying colour to the figure, researching and then adding a rudimentary window frame. The logistics here are tricky to manage; getting all four boards on the easel at once to begin with, and I need that to ensure line up accuracy with all the horizontals – window, jaw, neckline, eyes (on a tilt), nose and mouth. I doubt I’ll get the expression identical on all four but do I need to? Should there not be some change? I’ve already thought about changing his direction of gaze from right (as we view it) to left, as if he’s projecting his isolation into the future in spring, and looking back over it in the winter – did he really believe it would be this long and will it ever end?
I chose a very simple window frame with a sill so as not to detract from the figure. My question to myself now is whether or not I want to hint at glass once I have the interiors finished. And what of those – a background, a light, or just something stark to keep the figure prominent? Maybe a mug of tea just visible, or a bottle of beer to suggest home. Perhaps I’ll post this in its WiP form (19 April 2020) to see if any passing visitor has thoughts.
A friend, a fellow OCA traveller, last night messaged me a link to David Hockney’s exhibition of 83 portraits and a still life, on video via the Royal Academy, pointing out that this series was in fact, one piece of art. He thought it might help me consider my approach to the background to my figure in each of the windows, and he’s right. Although it seems to me that Hockney brought something of California back to his Bradford palette, my colours have some similarity, albeit more muted. The theme of his series, maybe retrospectively applied, was individuality – every person is different and each one painted ‘democratically’ as in given the same three days and intensity of artistic effort whether famous or not – whereas mine is the same figure in the same space but arguably also an individual who will receive that same attention from me across the seasons and as he slides away from the window. Hockney’s uncluttered intellectualism, his lack of pretension, and his clarity of vision – which is to say pragmatic realism – appeals to me. But then it would; we’re from the same town, and I grew up with people whose depth and breadth could be underestimated by anyone who relied on floral vocabularies for their judgment. Them fancy southerners for instance; fur coat, no knickers!
So now I have some ideas in mind to progress my piece(s) of work, once I’ve cleared out Hockney’s California palette from my head.
To my eye, the man in the pink window looks a bit different from the others. I think it’s his mouth, so I’ll tackle that tomorrow. I’ll also finish off the window frames and maybe, possibly, but maybe not, add a mug or an indication of one, just visible above the edge of the frame. I think a man such as him would bring his cup of tea with him to the window.
Would it be pretentious to title this Windows-19? Good, thank you – Windows-19 it is.
Another day, another iteration. Some attention to the brickwork and window frame to help identify these and lose the prevailing impression of a series of photo frames. Next I need to attend to the brick work above and below the window because this is often different. I’ll mark those out tomorrow. I’m also going to cut out some thin strips of black paper to see if a separator across the middle of the window, as in a sash window, would enhance or detract from the mood I’m hoping comes from the figure behind it. I really don’t want to risk painting that without seeing what it might look like first! There’s snow on the winter window sill so do I need something on each of the others?
Today, brickwork above and below the window as per a reference photo. Also a lightly glued black strip across the window to get a feel for whether or not this would add or detract from the impression.
I think the minimal brick work now casts the rest of that surface in the same role, and while normally a sash window would have be split in the upper area and the sash margin would be higher, I’m really only seeking to say ‘window’ without detracting from the figure behind it. So, the next step will be to convert the strips to paint and add a hint of the closure mechanism in the centre. I’ve decided against any further seasonal embellishments, the window now seems strong enough to say what it needs to say. Oddly, I started out with a kind of Pop Art notion in my mind, then found myself becoming more ‘painterly’ with the figure. Less flat, more rounded and textured. The same happened with the brick work and I find that satisfying.
What I’ve also found is that this, as a series, revels in the title of quadrip- or tetraptych. It’s going to be quite a challenge to photograph it on a suitable background but I have an idea.
For some reason the light is not so colour-friendly today and everything has a pink cast. Possibly there’s more yellow light because it’s earlier in the day. I know that background is bright white so I’ll take another later and hope it looks on the screen more like it looks to my eye. Ideally, they’d have more white space around them, and to be completely compliant with their core social distance/isolation message – a whole wall.
I used the black paper as a guide to where I wanted the window divide to come then removed the strips and painted them in, adding a latch and some hints at the woodwork from a photo reference. At the end, I was quite happy with the effect, showing the figure inside looking out, and gradually retreating as the seasons go by. I also used a photo reference to add an impression of brickwork above and below the window which I think lends its identification to the rest of that surface. I really didn’t want to add too much detail because this isn’t about the wall, it’s about the man behind it. I left the interior of the room white for the same reason.
The details come up quite nicely though, apart from the last one, the camera having only a small area to focus on and no large contrasting space to compensate for.
This may be better. They’re held onto the card with glue dots and kept shifting so I had to be quick!
And these are the individual canvas boards.
The narrative then, is the prevailing topic of the times; social isolation and lockdown, especially of older and more vulnerable people, while the COVID-19 pandemic takes its course and until there is either a mitigating drug regime or a vaccine. He starts off as so many of us did in the early spring, looking out at the world but by summer, then autumn, it’s less hopeful of an immediate lifting of protection strategies, and by winter he is almost giving up because why look at what he can’t have?
On a personal note, I am very lucky because I have a large garden, neighbours to talk to over the fences – from a distance, obviously, and a very active online world. With the exception of slight food anxiety – especially cat food without which my five might be taking a very different view of my usefulness! – life is only marginally different now from the way it was before. Those trapped in flats must be feeling this acutely though and my heart bleeds for them.
Custodio, I. 2018. Studio visit Firelei Baez. MoMA Magazine. [online] Available at https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/16?high_contrast=false. Accessed 19 April 2020.
Royal Academy of Arts, 2016. Exhibition on screen: David Hockney RA. [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RjpQMjKUrw. Accessed 20 April 2020.
Octavia Butler wrote** extraordinary science fiction; Xenogenesis (a trilogy) was the first I came across and my current read is Kindred. They’re all available on Audible if, like me, listening while painting is your preference.
*Coronavirus pandemic. As I write, this is April 2020 and my country, like many, is on lockdown while science figures out a way to minimise risk and governments figure out how to manage their populations to minimise deaths.
**In looking for a suitable link, I discovered that she very sadly and quite tragically died in 2006.
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